Food Shelf Giving Gardens: Flipping the Narrative

Community gardens partnering with food shelves to determine what to grow and how to donate it is an essential step in getting fresh food to those who need it. In the Northeast Kingdom and the Mad River Valley, two food shelves are flipping that narrative by reaching out to their local communities to see what role gardens can play in getting food to their clientele. 

Canaan Community Garden – Canaan, VT

Suzanne Routhier, who runs the Canaan office of Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA) and a food shelf on site, plowed a 16 x 67 foot plot of land on their property to start a community garden for the 2019 growing season. In its first year the garden involved two local families who took on plots for growing. This year, in response to an increased need for fresh food and a community call for growing together, Suzanne consolidated the plots and grew one large garden–all for donation to the food shelf. A farmer’s daughter, Suzanne didn’t need help with the more technical aspects of growing, but did need community and volunteer support to tend the garden. She partnered with Alice Ward Memorial Library and Canaan Naturally Connected to outreach and connect with new volunteers.

While Suzanne has appreciated the bounty from the garden this year, she’s found that her food shelf clients have missed the individualized plots where they could grow their own food and in fact she’s seen an increased interest. Next season she plans to break the garden into 12 smaller plots for individual use. She will continue to hold a plot for the food shelf, growing produce she knows she’ll need and that clients will eat like cucumbers, tomatoes, winter squash, bush beans, radishes, and leafy greens. She hopes to continue to utilize volunteers to start a “Garden Sitters” program. The idea is that if garden plot holders are away for a period of time or get busy and need assistance that there’s a core of volunteers to take over when needed.

Mad River Valley Victory Garden – Waitsfield, VT

Jessica Tompkins, director of the Mad River Valley Food Shelf, was inspired by Vermont Victory Garden’s call to grow fresh food for the food shelf and help people learn how to grow their own. She found a plot of land within American Flatbread’s Lareau Farm complex (that includes a farm, community garden with plots for rent, the American Flatbread restaurant, and inn) in Waitsfield. 

Jessica didn’t have the know-how to start her own garden, so was appreciative to be matched with Master Gardener, Kitty Werner. The two of them met and planned out what the garden would look like and what to grow. And then the community pitched in: they got money for the project from “Bottles & Cans,” a program of Waitsfield United Church of Christ; Woods Farm donated $250 in seeds and plants; the Vermont Victory Garden project passed on a donation of seeds from High Mowing; and a farm stand was built by a local carpenter with donated lumber and an awning from Yestermorrow design build school, and donated crates from Vermont Wine Merchants.

And then came the volunteers, recruited through Front Porch Forum and The Valley Reporter. Eighteen volunteers showed up and planted the whole garden in an hour and a half. Throughout the season Kitty continued to support the project with tips on growing, dealing with pests, and to keep tabs on what needed to happen in the garden and when a larger group of volunteers were needed for a work party. Jessica kept up a Facebook group for communicating with volunteers. She found that many volunteers signed on because they wanted to learn how to garden–people who’d recently moved back to the area in the time of COVID and had never gardened before. A couple of volunteers offered to lead educational sessions for their fellow volunteers, in addition to the informal learning that happened organically while weeding. When asked about favorite outcomes, one volunteer shared: “Meeting new people was great, especially being new to the community. This was a great way to connect with people who are passionate about growing and food.” 

The group’s primary route for sharing their harvest was through a pay-what-you-can / take-what-you-need farm stand, dubbed the “Mad Stand.” This model was particularly appealing to Jessica, recognizing the value of allowing people to access food without stigma of the food shelf. The Mad Stand was open two days a week during the season, starting in mid-summer, with produce from the Mad Victory Garden, the American Flatbread garden, and the community garden. The stand was primarily run by one volunteer, Donna Mackie, who would post the list of vegetables available at the stand on Front Porch Forum a couple of days before and the day of each farm stand opening. Donna also processed some of the food for special tastings and provided recipes to help people think of new ways to use the featured vegetables. Any money from the Mad Stand went towards the food shelf and next year’s garden program.

As the group looks towards next year, they hope to increase their ability to offer special foods by creating a processing center. Jessica also hopes to increase the amount of educational opportunities available to the broader community through the garden. Ultimately her wish for the garden and farm stand project: “I hope it evolves and becomes a staple of our community.”

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